Flags

I don’t normally comment here on current events, at least ones that don’t involve North Korea. But the killing of nine worshipers at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and an image of gunman Dylann Roof from his Facebook page, has prompted me to comment.

First, a little bit about images. One of the reasons I pay attention to North Korean media, and tend to discount speculation about events in North Korea from those outside the country, is that outsiders simply do not know very much. But the images, when examined thoughtfully, can tell us some things.

For example, after Kim Jong Un became supreme leader, following the death of his father Kim Jong Il, the Korean Central News Agency ran a series of stories featuring Kim Jong Un visiting military bases and embracing soldiers, sailors, and air force pilots. It was sappy and even a little silly looking.

But, how do you convince a nation that a 27-year-old (allegedly) who rose out of nowhere is fit to be the “father of the nation?” Easy — you show him physically caring for people. Even as the image didn’t tell us much, it told us a lot. We can get past mindless speculation (did Kim really kill his uncle with hungry wild dogs, or a mortar round, or an anti-aircraft gun? Does he like fancy cheese and Swiss cigarettes?) into seeing what the pictures themselves are communicating.

Which gets us to Dylan Roof. The photo from his Facebook feed is that of a sullen, and even angry, teenager in a black jacket with a couple of flags on it:

Specifically, the flag of apartheid-era South Africa. And below it, the flag of Ian Smith’s self-proclaimed white supremacist state of Rhodesia.

Now, some symbols are affectations. A friend from high school noted that a British flag, or even an anarchy patch, is an aesthetic affectation. They say something of the aesthetic preferences of the wearer. The young mod wearing the British flag is not likely swearing allegiance to Queen Elizabeth. (I hope I remembered that righ, because it has been a long time…) And the wearer of the anarchy pin or patch likely hasn’t given the “A” much real consideration. It likely means, at most, loud and angry music.

I would even go so far as to say the Stars and Bars the Confederate battle flag is an affectation, at least for white people who wear it. (I’m not denying the hateful potency of the symbol for black and brown folks, but merely saying many white people who embrace the battle flag do so for reasons that have little to do with overt racism.) It may say something about the politics of the wearer (or their personality), but mostly I suspect it tells us more about the wearer’s cultural and aesthetic preferences than it does their social and political views: the music they listen to, what they do and consume to have fun, who they think they are. (And aren’t.) It may be adopted consciously as a racist symbol by the wearer, but it doesn’t have to be. Especially if adopted carelessly and thoughtlessly, through a kind-of cultural osmosis. Because frequently, cultural affectations can be picked up carelessly or thoughtlessly, something adopted because those around have adopted them or they strike someone’s fancy.

Now a swastika, and most Nazi imagery, is more than an affectation. It cannot (or cannot easily) be adopted carelessly, simply because one is surrounded by people who wear it. It is not omnipresent in American society, and carries a fair amount of stigma in polite society. So, a swastika tells us something about the politics and worldview of the wearer, and not simply their aesthetic or cultural preferences, because it has to be very consciously and purposefully adopted.

Which gets us to Roof’s flags. These are not affectations. Thought and purpose had had to go into their adoption. Especially that Rhodesian flag, which is the symbol of one of the most repugnant and racist regimes of the post-WW2 era. It’s an obscure flag — I didn’t recognize it at first — and thus he had to do some work. Rhodesia didn’t strike Roof’s fancy, white supremacy mostly likely struck Roof’s fancy. The kind of methodical and brutal (and ironically, doomed) white supremacy that was Ian Smith’s Rhodesia and apartheid South Africa.

There is, unhappily, a subculture in America that venerates the days of white rule in southern Africa, particularly Rhodesia, but also Portuguese Angola and Mozambique, and especially looks longingly to the Rhodesian Armed Forces as a heroic example from a bygone era. It is tiny, very marginal, and once upon a time spent its days slobbering over feature articles and firsthand accounts in Soldier of Fortune magazine, and frankly is populated more by idle dreamers than actual doers.

Well, until yesterday.

The picture tells us a lot. Roof has communicated a great deal in this image. He has told us what he admires, and how he thinks the world should be organized. Who matters, and who doesn’t, and why. And he told us these things some time (though how long I am not certain) before he walked into an AME church and killed nine people.

My friend asked an interesting question, one I hope pundits, reporters, and police investigators will ask for some weeks to come — Did Roof wear these flags in public? Why didn’t anyone notice the flags, and what they meant, and say something? Or do something? What did the adults around Roof know and believe that he thought it was okay for him to wear the symbols of two white supremacist regimes — history Roof had to actually go dig out and find in order to learn?

There may be other questions too, I do not know.

On Being a Suspicious Character

Had an interesting encounter this evening in the West Garfield Park neighborhood of Chicago. I was waiting outside Bethel Evangelical Lutheran Church — an African American Lutheran church — to rehearse some music with Minister of Music Sam Widemon. (We’re playing at Resurrection Lutheran’s Worship in the Street next Sunday, and I have asked him to join me at Lion & Lamb Festival.) Sam is an amazing musician, and it turns out, is deeply in love with my music.

But Sam was late. (He called me, told me I was tied up in traffic.) So, I sat in my van, waiting, at the corner of West End and Keeler. Now, West Garfield Park is a rough neighborhood. It was once a very German immigrant neighborhood, from sometime in the late 19th century until probably the early 1950s, when the children and grandchildren of White European migrants — Swedes, Germans, Norwegians, Danes — left for the suburbs. And were replaced, initially, on the south and west sides of Chicago by African Americans.

There’s still the bits and pieces of the old German infrastructure around. Churches with foundation stones and stained glass in German. A few old synagogues now doing duty as Missionary Baptist Churches. While never well loved by the powers that be, West Garfield Park has fallen into decay and disrepair. Abandoned homes. Boarded up apartment buildings that were probably once quite lovely for a working-class neighborhood. The neighborhood lost 25 percent of its residents in the 1990s as folks who could leave did. Leaving behind those who, for whatever reason, cannot leave.

Anyway, there I was, alone in my van. Sitting with my backpack and my guitar (in a gig bag) next to me. I’ve been waiting a half hour when a couple of young men approach the van, and ask me to roll down the window.

“How can I help you, sir?” I ask.

“You go here?” asks one young man, pointing to the church.

“Yes sir, I do. I’m waiting for Sam Widemon, the minister of music.”

He seems to relax a bit. “We know Sam. Okay. But we just needed to check. Trying to keep suspicious characters out of the neighborhood, you know.”

And as they turn away, I notice the second young man has two screwdrivers, which he had been holding behind him. One in each hand.

They hung around the car, at a distance, for about 15 minutes. A younger boy asks me for money, which I say I don’t have. And the other two appear to dress him down for it.

And then they leave.

Over the course of the next 10 minutes, three police SUVs drove by. No one in them even slowed down to give me a second look.

It was an interesting encounter. I was a little bit nervous, uncertain what exactly was going to happen when I was asked to roll the window down. Exactly where things would go from there.

But I also had to appreciate this — I was a lone white man, sitting alone in a non-descript silver van, with something that might have looked like a weapon (my guitar in the gig bag). I was a suspicious character. (I have seen a few white people in the neighborhood, usually folks very down on their luck. The only white people in cars I’ve seen there were either police or there to buy drugs. I have been asked twice if I was there to buy drugs.) I think the young man who spoke to me was sincere, on some level, about what his intentions were. Had robbery been the point, I doubt that my being at Bethel Church would have saved me.

I have to appreciate that I’ve lived a very different experience of race in American than many white people. Largely because I was Muslim for many years, which made me the minority. (I still remember the afternoon, after prayer, when a young boy whose parents were Libyans looked up at me, grasped the side of my head with his small hands, and exclaimed: “Your eyes! They’re blue!”) Among African American Muslims, that made me one of them. I’ve been asked for my slave name (my Muslim name was Omar), lived and worked and prayed in places people who look like me would be too afraid to even think about going into.

Once, I even worked for a member of the Nation of Islam. Which is a fun story that I will tell someday. But not today.

But, I also know that none of this experience is apparent. That no one can look at me and know those things about me. I know that I am no longer Muslim, I no longer dress as a Muslim, and so I cannot be identified as a Muslim in a neighborhood like West Garfield Park. Instead, I am something much less interesting and much more problematic: a white man. And I carry the baggage of all that means in a place like Chicago.

(This ability to easily slip between worlds, to know that the rules of American race don’t really apply to me anymore because I have joined a community of people who have generally seceded from them, is one of the things I miss terribly about not being Muslim.)

I don’t focus so much on my safety (though I never try to do anything too careless of stupid), but rather what my presence — and who I appear to be — means for those around me. I do not want to be an attractive nuisance in a neighborhood like West Garfield Park, do not want to be the reason someone else gets themselves into trouble. That way of thinking about one’s own personal safety then makes it a way of thinking about others. I find it helpful. But then I have a very unique set of experiences on this. A very unique perspective.

I’m still not sure what today was about, what my meeting with the ad hoc neighborhood watch committee on Keeler meant. I find myself wondering what would have had to happen for the whole encounter to have gone badly. I do not know who the young men were, what their interest was. For a moment I was a suspicious character. I do not wish to speculate.

But for a moment, I was a suspicious character.